Detective Victor Curnble leaned back in his swivel chair and rubbed his eyes. He’d been staring at his computer screen for hours, trying to wrap up the paperwork for this case. He was ready for this gruesome chapter to be over with, but the words wouldn’t come.
The detective sighed and lowered his hand. It was eerie, sitting among a sea of abandoned desks and chairs in the dark. His lamp and the ghostly glow of the computer screen were the only sources of light. Still more haunting were the contents of the evidence box sitting beside him. Detective Curnble peeked down at the three deceptively innocent teddy bears, each holding a giant red heart. The words, “I love you,” were written across the hearts in swirly white script. It all came back to him then, like a wave of dark images and grief-stricken voices.
“What have we got here, lieutenant?”
“Looks like a date gone horribly wrong. The victim was found tied to a chair before a dining room table set for two. There were flower petals, candles, and full wine glasses left behind, untouched. Along with this bear…”
“What seems to be the time and cause of death, Dr. Yang?”
“Liver temperatures suggest the TOD to be approximately six hours ago. The COD is definitely strangulation, although, these bruises along her forearms and hands are indicative of a struggle. Perhaps we’ll be able to find DNA under her fingernails.”
“Anything else to report?”
“The satin gown she’s wearing shows no signs of wear. The shoes also appear to be new and slightly larger than the victim’s feet.”
“So the killer dressed her in new clothes after he killed her?”
“It’s a likely theory I might be able to prove upon further testing.”
“All right. Let’s get her back to the lab. I want everything in this room bagged and tagged. Maybe our killer unintentionally left something behind for us to track him with. We’ll go door to door and see if anyone heard or saw anything peculiar last night.”
“Detective Curnble. We’ve found another date victim. Same MO as the young lady we found three weeks ago.”
“This guy was in the wind. We found no conclusive evidence to make an arrest. Why would he risk exposing himself by killing a second time?”
“I don’t know, but we can only hope he left us something at this crime scene.”
“Nothing. Just the same damn teddy bear and other useless props. How is he doing this? Why is he targeting these girls? What do they all have in common?”
“Gina? What are you doing here?”
“It’s Chelsea. I-I think she might be in trouble. She said she was going to meet someone for a first date last night, but she promised to call me after to tell me how it went. I fell asleep while waiting up for her, but when I checked my phone this morning, I didn’t have any missed calls. It went straight to voicemail when I tried calling her. I went by her apartment and she wasn’t there.”
“Calm down, sis. Did she tell you where she was going to meet this guy?”
“Y-Yes. It was a bar. The Golden Mare.”
“I hate to ask, but is there any chance Chelsea went home with this guy?”
“After one date? She would never! Vick, I raised that girl to have more respect for herself than that.”
“I had to be sure. I’ll go check out the bar and see if anyone saw her.”
“Yes, I recognize her. She was sitting in that booth last night. She kept checking the door and the clock, like she was waiting for someone. She received a phone call around midnight and left. She looked relieved. I thought it might’ve been the person she was waiting for.”
“Did you see where she went?”
“She took a cab around the corner. That’s the last I saw of her.”
“Did you catch the cab number by any chance?”
“Yes, hello. My name is Detective Curnble. I’m with the Seattle Police Department. Last night around midnight, you picked up a twenty-year-old girl with dark hair and green eyes from a bar called The Golden Mare. Do you remember? Good. She’s gone missing. Can you tell me where you dropped her off?”
“Open up! SPD! Hello? The door’s unlocked. I’m letting myself in. Hello? Anybody home? …Oh, God. Chelsea.”
“I’m sorry, Gina. I’m so sorry. I’m going to find who did this and make sure he never sees the light of day. I promise you.”
Victor gruffly wiped his eyes and turned back to his screen. He had fulfilled his promise. The serial killer, nick-named The Romantic, was serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison. No one else would die at his hand.
A door slamming shut caused the detective to leap to his feet and reach for his gun. A light had come on in a room across the way, probably while he’d been reminiscing. Abandoning his desk, Victor crept around the empty desks to the light. It was coming from the interrogation room. His eyes flickered from side to side as he reached for the doorknob. Just what in the world was going on? He pushed the door open. The gun shook in the detective’s hand.
The table was set for two. The wine glasses were full, the candles lit. There was a woman dressed in a satin gown tied to a chair. Her head lulled to the side, her foggy, unblinking eyes seemingly fixed on the floor. Sitting across from her was a little teddy bear holding a heart in his paws.
The door shut behind the detective. He spun around with a curse and twisted the doorknob. Of course, it was locked from the outside. He tugged with all his might, but the door wouldn’t budge.
“Oh, crap,” said a bored voice over the intercom. “You’re in a bit of a situation, aren’t you?”
Victor shuddered and looked over at the two-way mirror. For a moment, he could see himself reflected there; a middle-aged man with blonde hair, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, gun drawn, blue eyes wild with fear. Then the lights in the interrogation room shut off, and a light behind the mirror turned on. A young man in a flannel shirt and jeans stood there with his hands in his pockets, brown hair askew, amber eyes half-lidded.
Victor gripped the gun until his knuckles ached. Rage and terror churned within him. “How?”
The young man shrugged, the tiniest of smiles pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters now is that Detective Curnble is trapped in a room with a dead body that appears to have been murdered by the same serial killer he put away.” His eyes widened in false surprise. “Could it be that you were The Romantic all this time, and you arrested an innocent man to avoid prison time?”
Victor let out a harsh laugh despite his trembling innards. “No one will ever believe that.”
The Romantic tilted his head to the side, his eyes traveling to the ceiling. Suddenly, Victor heard it; the sound of cars skidding to a stop just outside the building and doors being shut.
The young serial killer flashed a devilish grin. “Are you sure?” He gave Victor a lazy salute and began to saunter out of the room.
“Why don’t you stick around and find out who’s right?” Victor shouted.
The young man chuckled and kept walking. “Good luck, Vick.”